Not currently on display

Department of Africa, Oceania
and the Americas 

Object details

Height: 63 cm
Width: 22.5 cm
Thickness: 25cm
Museum number: Af1953,25.10

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Mancala (wari) board

Sierra Leone, probably before 1911

A wari board, used for playing a count and capture game, made of painted wood with four wheels.

Mancala is a generic term for a specific family of count and capture games. These games may be played on portable boards, but also in rows of holes dug in the ground, cut into natural rock or carved into tree roots. Different forms of this game are still played across Africa, in parts of Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean.

The word mancala is derived from the Arabic verb naqala meaning ‘to transfer’ or ‘to move from its place’. Players move a set number of seeds around the board in a given direction. These are subsequently captured by means of calculation and strategy. The aim of most mancala games is to capture the majority of the seeds.

Historical accounts from West Africa, such as that written in 1803 by Thomas Winterbottom, accurately describe a form of two-row mancala which continues to be played in Sierra Leone today. A later, but more detailed, narrative of the game of ‘ware’ is provided by Thomas J Alldridge writing in 1910. He describes the holes as ‘towns’ each one ‘garrisoned by four war boys’ – the seeds.

Wari boards from Sierra Leone are notable for their decorative openwork bases. This striking board has two rows of six playing holes and two end holes for storing captured seeds. It is painted blue-green and is supported on four fixed wheels. It has a central compartment for storing the playing seeds – in this case cowrie shells – when the board is not in use.

Such a highly elaborate board would have reflected the wealth and prestige of its owner through its size, painted decoration and carved elements.

Related display

Sowei mask



Alexander J. De Voogt, Mancala Board Games, p.64; pl.2, British Museum Press, London, 1997